Bethlehem Steel: Disposable Architecture or Iconic Landmark?

That’s the ultimate question of the Bethlehem Steel Administration building and unfortunately it looks as if the question has already been answered by the City of Lackawanna officials and the owners. Thankfully, there are still people who don’t want to see this Beaux-Arts beauty sent to the landfill like so many great buildings before it. The reason for the demolition has been said to be due to the deteriorated state of the building which poses an immediate safety concern. It’s been largely open to the elements and deteriorating for the better part of thirty years, so why is now the time for it to go rather than be rehabilitated?

Preservationists are asking that question and one of them has the potential answers for a successful rehabilitation and reuse of the iconic landmark. Darren Cotton, from UB’s Urban Planning graduate program, wrote his master’s thesis specifically on the reuse of this building. He was kind enough to share the document with me, which includes precedent studies, various reuse scenarios, identifying key players, and even rehabilitation time lines.

As Darren so aptly points out, the master plan for Lackawanna’s waterfront calls specifically for the reuse of this building. “The former employment office of the Bethlehem Steel Plant represents a unique architectural form within the former steel plant complex. Due to the importance of steelmaking operations to the growth and development of the City, it is in the public interest to promote the preservation of locally significant structures which can serve as a reminder to our area residents of the site’s history. Public and private dollars shall be used…to rehabilitate the structure into a regional trade center.” That was written in 1989 and apparently in the last 22 years none of what the City proposed to its residents has materialized on the site.

Darren also cites the prime location in relation to the recent improvements of the Buffalo waterfront nearby. Additionally, site contamination is a concern, but through Darren’s thorough research he discovered that the area directly around the building has never been built on and would likely require very little remediation.

Western New York usually doesn’t go more than three days without an article in the paper that discusses what should be down with the area’s waterfront. The master plan for Buffalo’s inner harbor calls for any new buildings around the new canals to be an interpretation of what was there historically. It seemed like a fantastic idea decades ago to tear down all those terrible buildings for the sake of new development, which still hasn’t happened on a large scale. The administration building in Lackawanna represents an opportunity to embrace heritage rather than maybe replicating it further down the road.

Look what other cities like Johnstown, PA have done with their former steel mill complexes. Rather than sending it all to the landfill, the city put a spotlight on their industrial heritage which is now a great tourist destination. There are countless other cities throughout the world that have followed suit, but Lackawanna isn’t one of them. The opportunity has been squandered as most of the site has been landfilled with the exception of a few structures and the administration building.

Now consider the location of the Bethlehem Steel Administration Building, adjacent to the recent investment of Buffalo’s Outer Harbor. New infrastructure, plantings, signage, urban furniture, etc. has all been installed within the last two years to mark the beginnings of new waterfront for the region. You can spot Bethlehem Steel from the Union Ship canal only feet away. It’s reuse could be a fantastic draw to the waterfront and fundamentally link Lackawanna and Buffalo.

A final interesting piece in the whole puzzle is the matter of the Restore NY money which was slated for the rehabilitation, not the demolition of this structure. In a recent letter from a NY State Historic Preservation Office representative, there was discussion of the funds being used to, “abate/remediate the building and make it ‘Preservation Ready.’” That’s quite the opposite of what is currently happening as demo equipment prepares to start the demolition today.

Tonight at Lackawanna’s City Hall many concerned citizens, preservationists, and others will be joining together to make their case to the city to halt the demolition. Everyone is more than welcome to attend the meeting which starts at 6:30 at 714 Ridge Road, Lackawanna, New York 14218. You can officially join the event on the Buffalo’s Young Preservation Facebook page.

Special thanks to Darren Cotton for his great research and knowledge and David Torke who has brought to light many of these details.

Darren’s proposed timeline for rehabilitation 

timeline.tif

About the author  ⁄ Todd Mitchell_

27 comments
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The question "disposable architecture or iconic landmark" is a false dichotomy. The reality is that the architecture is brilliant, but the building isn't worth the investment to save it in my opinion. I will repeat this on every topic I see relating to the building: it is in a field of grass, it has no connection to an urban setting, and capital in Buffalo is better spent redeveloping the urban core in the city rather than an outpost of an industrial site from years past. Instead of pushing preservation efforts towards saving this structure, it would be best to let this one go and save things in the city that could be better kept up, ones that have a connection to urban fabric.

sonyactivision
sonyactivision

The facade could be cataloged, disassembled and placed into storage. I would recommend reconstructing it in Delaware Park since the architecture is very much of the same period, style and quality. It could serve any number of purposes there. If Buffalo can lose a church building to a Georgia congregation, it can gain an important new civic monument since Lackawanna has no use for it.

jfhaber
jfhaber

Is this to become the next Larkin Building in WNY's legacy? What a loss to see this beautiful building come down. Would it be possible to shore and retain the facade? How many years did the Gas Works facade stand in downtown Buffalo until Health Now included it in it's new building.

Liberty10
Liberty10

Beautiful building with no potential investors and seems to have little use value.

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I talked to someone from city hall it if will cost the city 7k to remove all the Save Trico graffiti stickers that are on public and private property.

NBuffguy
NBuffguy

So, like I said, now that decades have passed with very little interest in saving this building, it looks like it's now too late save it, rendering the question of whether it's "disposable architecture or an iconic landmark" a moot point.

paulsobo
paulsobo

A major building set the tone and changed the predominant opinion as to the worth of the entire community.

It wont be easier to redevelop Lackawanna without this building. It will be much harder.

You hit the nail....even if the consensus was to save the building...Lackawanna is poor...where will the money come from?

Perhaps...this should be the topic of conversation. I think the consensus is already to save it...and what we need to change the Mayor's mind is funding.

Preservation / Landmark Tax Credits?

Tax Subsidies (Lackawanna, NYS, Federal)?

Community donations?

any other ideas?

How about community day where people clean up the land surrounding the building much as people do for the Central Terminal?

Infact, how about creating a non-profit modelled on the Central Terminal responsible for stabilizing the structure until it can be turned over to a developer?

Hey if its not near anything...forgive me for saying this...but its forbidden for child molesters to be within a distance of children...why not a homeless shelter? The Lafayette was preserved for decades by acting as boarding house for the homeless. Why not use the fact that its not near anything as a plus rather than a minus. ok, not a great idea but worth considering.

sonyactivision
sonyactivision

There's a lot of possible uses for this grand old structure but the pricetag is huge so anything done would have to maximize the value-added. I don't see it as a residential but it can be administrative offices, a magnet school, a museum, a college of some sort, etc. What is should'nt be is demolished. Nor should it be a burden on the city of Lackawanna. The state and the county should step in here and take possession of the building and some of the grounds while larger plans can be devised and fully aired.

sonyactivision
sonyactivision

It isn't on Elmwood Ave. That's why nobody cared.

No_Illusions
No_Illusions

You would seriously want to live there?

Its in the middle of a burnt out ocean of industrial land, some of it actively being used. It is far from attractive for residential use.

However, I could see it as an office building for one of the surrounding light industries.

The idea of a museum is also a good one.

The problem of course comes back to funding these projects.

mikeraleighphd
mikeraleighphd

I love the argument that the preservationists who want to save buildings ought to have the money to do so or shut their mouths. Mr. Samuel Jaworski, do you have the money to demolish this building? . . . No in Buffalo and elsewhere here the taxpayers pay for the demolitions. And for a building this size it is going to cost well over one hundred thousand dollars. Please forgive citizens who have some thoughts about public expenditures.

DTK2OD
DTK2OD

Faith in rational economic models of efficiency are what got us highways slicing through dense urban neighborhoods and high-rise low income housing projects. I'm not sure the "market" is always the most capable decision maker.

buffalofalling
buffalofalling

Disposal architecture as a result of economic forces and weak market conditions. We either begin to think small and plan for it, or we continue to cling deparately to a past that will never be our future. Spending time and money on something the market doesn't want on take money away from better opportunities.

Kudos to Darren's effort, but as a recent planning publication stated, planners lack a fundamental understanding of economics. This is just such a case.

Time to grasp smart decline people.

Mike Puma
Mike Puma

That quote comes from the City of Lackawanna Waterfront plan of 1989. The thesis Darren prepared was done this year.

paulsobo
paulsobo

What company wouldnt want this building for their offices? I would!

Who wouldnt want a condo or an apartment in a building with an exterior facade like this? I would!

Save the exterior facade. The Interior was gutted in many remodels and the rear was demolished for expanded offices and labs....its pretty much the facade...but what a beautiful facade it is.

As we have seen from other buildings like the Central Terminal and the Larkin Warehouse and others...it is exactly buildings of this quality which act as anchors to redevelop the surrounding lands.

Its such a shame when we have demonstrated evidence of success and those whom we elect as leaders refuse to take it and lead in our best interest. The Mayor of Lackawanna is operating in the lowest common denominator of intelligence and leadership....kind of like Brown in Buffalo and Muriel Howard at Buffalo State.

DTK2OD
DTK2OD

It was actually raised in the City of Lackawanna's Local Waterfront Revitalization Program.

NBuffguy
NBuffguy

Um, yeah, but raising the question in a 1989 Masters Thesis isn't exactly what I was talking about. It probably would take a bit more than that to save a building, apparently.

Rand503
Rand503

Did you not read the post? The question was raised 22 years ago. How much longer do you need?

DTK2OD
DTK2OD

The Administration Building and its grounds are zoned as "Business Park" according to the City of Lackawanna Comprehensive Plan Addendum for the Bethlehem Redevelopment Area. Due to the high visibility of these parcels from Route 5 and Fuhrmann Boulevard, they function as the face for the entire brownfield site and thus are subject to must stricter design guidelines. The area has been targeted for office, commercial, and research and development activities. This building provides an opportunity for businesses who co-located in a redeveloped business/light industrial park to align their back office services within a central headquarters that could also house meeting space, conference technology, visitor services, etc.

NBuffguy
NBuffguy

"Disposable Architecture or Iconic Landmark" is a provocative title, but it's a shame nobody was asking the question several years or decades ago. As it goes, I would say the question has now been answered, now that it is likely too late to save the building and treat it as an iconic landmark. The question almost seems moot.

Buffalo All Star
Buffalo All Star

Iconic landmark of course...I still don't feel its up to the government to step in to salvage a place like this, enforce codes yes, but salvage no.

County-wide public private partnership..talk to some of our local foundations and philanthropists. There are plenty of people in WNY that appreciate history..but feel that can't make a difference. PBN is not proactive. You wouldn't be able to save buildings like this via City government..look at Kensington Heights? lol

Seizure on a public scale passing it along to this "renovation/restoration" foundation and then finally back into the hands of private owners. COUNTY WIDE.. would be a great divison within the new landbank would it not?

I agree with the above..a key part of the equation though would be logic. Viable reuse plan? Economics? Comparables? Define historic? Partial demolition? Whats worth saving? Save the facade?

Funding program for people to purchase assets like this? Lord knows you can barely get a mortgage for a single family...let alone something like this building.

JM
JM

Here's how I would arrange it (http://i.imgur.com/j8NRF.jpg)

This would give access to the water, making something like the Maritime Center or something requiring water access possible.

SoBlo
SoBlo

This building is one of my favorites that I have driven past it almost daily to/from school and work for years. Truly a grand looking building that would be a waste to have fall to the wrecking ball. I think the biggest issue is that the process for development in Western New York is broken.

I'm assuming the owners of this property that have let it go to hell are the same Gateway people that own the relatively large building adjacent to Woodlawn Beach. It's so disappointing that the developers in this area can consistently move on to new projects and let their other properties lay in waste, and ultimately come face to face with the wrecking ball. I wish more was done to hold developers in the area accountable (countless vacant Tops strip malls, ahem) and the government agencies that allow this reckless practice do such damage to this area. So much wasted space.

Polockness Monster
Polockness Monster

Completely agree... the key point being the need for a 'viable reuse plan.'

nick
nick

You should really include an aerial photo to illustrate the location of the building. The realities of the location cannot be overlooked in discussing the reuse of this building. If it could be purchased from Gateway along with property to the west and north to provide access to the water I think you could find a reuse. The current site realities are that this building is marooned in a sea of light industry that is functioning and profitable. Relocate this industry towards the rear of the site and this building could be reusable. These realities must be talked about beyond the emotional outpouring to save this building. Emotion will not save this building, a viable reuse plan will.

ericsando
ericsando

It's a nice building with history. I wouldn't go as far as to call it an iconic landmark. I would like to see it rehabilitated but I wouldn't call it's demo a major loss. It sounds like the building is in a serious state of disrepair and would require a major financial investment to renovate it. Is this site truly worth that?

There is momentum going on the outer harbor and with Steel Winds this site has future potential.

samuel.jaworski
samuel.jaworski

Why is everyone all excited about preservation now? What about during all the time where the building sat decaying and getting into the state it is in? If you have the money to spend on fixing up this building, go for it.

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